22 Jun The stories that define us
I’ve been reading to my stepdaughter some of the stories that were read to me as a child. Dr Seuss and Where the Wild Things Are, of course, and recently the Moomin stories by the Finnish poet Tove Jansson.
We all know that the stories we tell reveal much about our culture and about us as individuals. We notice that the heroes of British films and TV shows still feel different to the heroes in North American films and shows, and that they’re different again in Scandinavian, Indian or Latin American productions – despite the increasingly global media influences. Our stories show what we believe and what we care about.
On some level, we’re aware that these stories not only reflect, but also shape us. They immerse us in the values of our culture and teach us what a hero looks like, what’s admirable, what’s acceptable and what isn’t. And few things bring that realisation home quite as viscerally as reading a story from our childhood.
First, there’s the strange and moving experience of hearing our parents’ voices in our minds, as we read the exact same words on the page. Then there’s the even more startling experience of recognising ourselves in the characters that we loved as a child.
The Moomin stories obviously struck a chord with children around the world – they’ve been translated into 50 languages and found success in Japan as a TV cartoon. I’ve not seen that cartoon and don’t know how the characters may have evolved to embed in other cultures. But as I read to my stepdaughter, I recognise these characters on the printed page as deep anchors in myself.
I find there a character that, as a child, I associated with my father – somehow representing what I understood then of his values and worldview. And two things strike me. First, I realise now that my father was never as extreme as that character. As a child, I understood that he loved the values represented by the character but I didn’t see then how much in his real life those values were balanced and eventually outweighed by other priorities.
And second, I see that as an adult I have become much more like that character than my father ever was. It’s a shocking realisation: to see how much a character in a children’s book must have taken root in my ideals and aspirations, to realise that the fictional character has influenced the person I turned out to be almost as powerfully as the role-models of my parents. These stories taught me about love and frailty and independence, and moulded me in ways I never understood until today.
Stories continue to influence us as adults and, in my professional life, I often explore how storytelling can help shape an organisational culture. Every group of people shares and reinforces its worldview through the stories it tells each other. So most of our employee engagement programs include an effort to gather and share those stories that best reflect the values of the organisation, to help direct the behaviours within it.
Howard Gardner, Harvard Professor of Cognition and Education, has said: “Stories are the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.” But rereading the stories of my childhood I’m reminded of another quote, from the novelist Sue Monk Kidd: “Stories have to be told or we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”